Capped Bust Coins

Capped Bust Coins

Capped Bust Coinage

A Report on the US Capped Bust Coinage Series: What they are and what to look for

 

 

Amongst the most unusual of American coins to have been produced since the foundation of the United States in 1776 the series of coins known as the Capped Bust coins, of which the Capped Bust Half Dollars are the most substantial, must surely rank amongst the most unusual. For a period of 33 years, between 1807 and 1839 the Federal Mint produced half dime, dime, quarter and half dollar coins which showed the bust of Liberty wearing a cap or hat on her head. This was quite different to the coins which had been produced in the foregoing period of the 1790s and early-to-mid-1800s, during which time Liberty was typically depicted with her hair flowing freely behind her. By way of contrast, from 1807 onwards Liberty was depicted with her hair more restrained by a cap. Other tangible differences in the depictions were evident, in that in the Flowing Hair Half Dollar Liberty’s expression was typically more flamboyant and she faced eastwards with her gaze slightly raised to the heavens, while in the original Capped Bust Half Dollars of 1807 and all editions of Capped Bust coins thereafter, Liberty is much more reserved, gazes directly ahead and is typically facing westwards on the half profile.[1]

1794 flowing hair dollar

An example of the 1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar

 

1807 capped bust half dollar

An example of the first Capped Bust Half Dollars produced in 1807. Note that as well as being depicted wearing a hat, instead of having her hair flowing free, as had been the case in the 1794 Flowing Hair Half Dollar above, in 1807 the Capped Bust has a more reserved facial expression and is depicted facing westwards rather than eastwards

 

There was a precedent to this design. In 1795 the engraver Robert Scott used a capped bust of Liberty as the profile for the gold quarter eagle, half eagle and eagle. This was not exactly the same, though, as Scott’s profile had a more exotic, almost Oriental look to it. As a result, Scott’s eagle coins are more widely known as the Turban Head Eagles. Scott had been appointed as the First Engraver of the Federal Mint in November 1793 and had an outsized influence on the early development of American coinage.

 

Capped Bust Gold

An example of the gold Turban Head Eagles produced by the engraver Robert Scott in 1795. These may have influenced John Reich in the development of the Capped Bust Half Dollar in 1807

 

Scott was also significant in that he appears to have been the individual who hired John Reich as his assistant in 1807. Reich was originally from Germany and came to the United States originally to take up a position working with Henry Voigt, a noted clockmaker. Voigt also served as Chief Coiner within the Mint and it was through this association that Reich was introduced to Scott and ended up being employed there himself. He appears to have acquired the position in 1807 and thus the striking of the dies of the Capped Bust Half Dollar was one of his very first acts during his time working within the Mint. It is clear from a government document of 25 March 1807 from the director of the Federal Mint, Robert Patterson, to President Thomas Jefferson that Reich was intended to ultimately be Scott’s successor:

 

“Our present Engraver, Mr. Scot, though indeed a meritorious and faithful officer, is yet so far advanced in life, that he cannot very long be expected to continue his labors. In the event of his sickness or death, the business of the Institu- tion would probably be stopped for some time, since few, if any one could be found qualified to supply his place except Mr. Reich, an artist with whose talents, I presume, you are not unacquainted; and this gentleman not finding business here sufficient for his support, is, I understand, about to remove to Europe. A small salary would, however, retain him in the country, and secure his services to the Mint. And, in truth, the beauty of our coins would be greatly improved by the assistance of his masterly hand.”[2]

 

Reich was to be paid $600 a year.

 

Within just days of his appointment to the position Reich was working on a new set of dies, the set of metallic pieces which are used to strike a coin by indenting the design onto it when a piece of metal is pressed between the two parts of the die. This was most likely the dies for the Capped Bust Half Dollar of 1807. Failing health shortly after he was appointed seems to have compelled him to step aside for some time in 1808, at which time he was briefly replaced by a Moritz Fuerst. However, Reich did not fully give up his position in the Mint until 1817.

 

The Capped Bust Half Dollar of 1807 which Reich designed was both an evolution on the earlier capped depiction of Liberty produced by Scott, but also a departure in many significant ways, not only from Scott’s design, but in terms of how it depicted Liberty in general. Her face is passive, dour almost (one might even say German), rather than the expressive figure we see on coins of the 1790s. Her hair is still free-flowing but topped by a cap. A clasp of some kind is visible at her shoulder and stars of varying sizes ring the perimeter of the coin which is 32.5mm in diameter. The metal composition of these silver half dollars was 89.2% silver and 10.8% copper, a composition which would be adhered to in nearly all Capped Bust coins for the next 33 years.[3]

 

What is almost certainly a fabricated story arose in the nineteenth century concerning the actual design of the Capped Bust image of Liberty as originally used on the half dollar. A memo of the 1860s holds that John Reich had come up with the image by using his “fat mistress” as a model. While it is interesting to speculate that a Federal Mint engraver managed to have the coinage which circulated in the United States for over thirty years depict his mistress, it seems improbable. Robert Patterson, the director of the mint, would surely have had oversight of what image was to be used for the future production of millions of coins and would not have allowed such a development. That said, another rumour still during the 1850s held that the model for Liberty used by Reich was actually Patterson’s wife![4]

 

Generally speaking the Capped Bust Half Dollar of 1807 and versions of it produced in subsequent years are not overtly valuable, as there are many copies of them which have survived. 750,000 of them were struck alone in 1807 and nearly twice that number in 1808. Collectors might get several hundred dollars for them, but few examples of the coin can fetch four figures. One of the major exceptions is the so-called Bearded Capped Bust Half Dollars. These are the result of where a die which was used to cast some of the coins was damaged. As a result, when they were being struck a line of metal was formed off of the chin of Liberty’s face, one which appears like a wisp of hair or beard. The number of these which have survived today is low and they are correspondingly valuable, with all of them being worth four figures and some fetching upwards of $15,000 if in mint, uncirculated condition.[5]  

 

Capped Bust Half Dollar

An example on the left hand side of a so-called Bearded Capped Bust Half Dollar of 1807. The ‘beard’ was formed owing to a damaged die causing the metal to be struck improperly here

 

 

Over the years a great many other variations of the Capped Bust Half Dollar were struck. For instance, beginning in 1809 a version of the coin with the portrait and eagle slightly remodeled entered production. There are myriad variations on these. Take for example the half dollars which were struck in 1812. Different version of these have ‘8’ rendered in slightly different sizes, as different dies were evidently used to strike them. Because there is such variety to these, the half dollars, although produced in large numbers which have survived today, can still fetch a moderately high price, some being worth upwards of $4,000 or $5,000 if they are in mint condition. One particularly valuable one is a copy of the 1811 Capped Bust Half Dollar, in which ‘1811’ was originally struck as ‘1810’. They were then re-struck to remove the erroneous year, but in copies of the coin which have survived today the ‘10’ is still faintly visible underneath the ‘11’. Copies of these can sell for upwards of $10,000 today.[6] 

 

In 1809 the Capped Bust image was extended by Reich to the dime. The metal composition of the Capped Bust Dime was identical to the previous Capped Bust coins, i.e. 89.2% silver and 10.8% copper, while the coin was 18.5mm in diameter. The image was slightly different, with an ear clasp more apparent here than on the image used for the Capped Bust Half Dollar two years earlier. As with the Capped Bust Half Dollar, copies of the Capped Bust Dime are limited in value, a result of there being hundreds and usually thousands of copies of them which have survived down to the present day. However, there are a number of these which have a higher than usual value. For instance, some copies of the coin which were struck in 1814 have a smaller date than most others, the result of the die either being imperfect or the coin not being struck as solidly as it should have been. Mint edition versions of this Small Date 1814 Capped Bust Dime can fetch a usual price of over $2,500, while uncirculated wholly mint copies are worth upwards of $6,000.[7]

 

In 1815 the Capped Bust was used by Reich in the striking of a third major coin. This was the Capped Bust Quarter. The metal composition was identical to that used in the Capped Bust Half Dollar and the Capped Bust Dime, while the diameter of the new coin was 27mm. A number of these quarters are more valuable than others. Curiously enough the 1815 version are amongst the most valuable, as there were less than 100,000 copies minted in the original run, while this was expanded to over 360,000 in the second round of minting in 1818. As such mint uncirculated copies of the 1818 Capped Bust Quarter can fetch upwards of $6,500.[8]

 

However, there are three other types of Capped Bust Quarter which have a very substantial value. The first of these were a limited number of the coins which were struck in 1822. These are known as the 1822 Capped Bust Quarters: 25 Cent Over 50 Cent. In these the coins were originally struck incorrectly with 50 cents given on them. They were then re-struck with the 25 cent denomination added over the 50 cent denomination. However, faint details of the 50 cent denomination can still be made out underneath. There are few examples of this particular coin extant today and they can sell for upwards of $70,000.[9]

 

The other highly valuable form of the Capped Bust Quarters are copies of the very limited number of coins of this kind which were struck in 1827. Only 4,000 copies of this were struck in 1827, which means there was a very low circulation to begin with and very few copies have survived over the span of nearly 200 years. As such copies can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, there are two varieties of this coin. In one the ‘2’ in ‘25c’ on the coin has a flat base to the ‘2’, while in others it is slightly curled. The curled version copies of the coin are rarer and some of these are worth upwards of $175,000, making them the second most valuable of the Capped Bust coins today.[10]

 

curly base 2 vs square base 2

Image showing the differences in the rendering of the ‘2’ in ‘25c’ on the 1827 Capped Bust Quarter. On one version the ‘2’ has a slight curl on it, while on the others the ‘2’ is flatter. The curled version of the coins are rarer and are very valuable. Mint edition copies can fetch up to $175,000, making them the second most valuable Capped Bust coins ever struck.

 

The Capped Bust Quarter was the last of the Capped Bust coins which were newly introduced during John Reich’s tenure in the Federal Mint in Philadelphia. However, the use of the Capped Bust on the dime, quarter and half dollar was continued by his near successor in the office, William Kneass. Kneass was a Pennsylvanian, who was born in 1780. He served in the War of 1812 against Britain. This was as a field engineer and Kneass was primarily charged with designing and laying out fortifications on the western side of the city of Philadelphia. After the war he became an engraver in Philadelphia. By the early 1820s he had become successful at this and in addition to running his own workshop he was a partner in two other concerns.[11]

 

This was the context in which Kneass was appointed as the second Chief Engraver of the Federal Mint in January 1824. During this time he would develop several coins, notably the Gold Quarter Eagle and a new design of a quarter. He also modified John Reich’s earlier design for the Capped Bust and utilised it for further coins and runs of coins, notably several runs of new half dollars on an almost yearly basis. Kneass would eventually serve as Chief Engraver of the Federal Mint down to 1840, at which time he died in office. Shortly before this the last of the Capped Bust coins had been discontinued. As such, he and Reich are the two engravers who were almost solely responsible for the design of the Capped Bust coins issued between 1807 and 1839.

 

Kneass’s major contribution to the Capped Bust series of coins was in the introduction of the Capped Bust Half Dime in 1829. Again the metal composition followed Reich’s formula of 89.2% silver and 10.8% copper as originally used for the half dollar exactly, with a 15.5mm diameter to the coin. Because of the small size of the coin many of the finer details of the image, such as some letters of the word ‘Liberty’, which were clearly delineated on the other Capped Bust coins, are less visible on the Capped Bust Half Dime.[12]

 

Because the half dime was such a widely used coin in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century there were massive numbers of these minted. For instance, 1.2 million were struck during the initial run in 1829. A similar number were produced a year later in 1830 and that pattern continued annually throughout the 1830s. Indeed there were nearly three million half dimes struck in 1835. The upshot of all of this is that the Capped Bust Half Dimes are generally the least valuable of all the Capped Bust coins that were struck between 1807 and 1839. The most valuable ones are a subset of the 1837 coins in which the ‘5c’ on the coin is smaller than that of the other half dimes. Yet even these will only fetch a maximum of $2,000 in mint, uncirculated condition.[13]

 

Eventually, towards the end of William Kneass’s tenure as Chief Engraver of the Federal Mint, the Capped Bust coinage was replaced by a new image. This abandoned the idea of showing a side profile of Liberty’s bust altogether, and instead opted for an image of Liberty Seated. This design, which was produced by the engraver Christian Gobrecht rather than Kneass, was adopted for the half dime and dime in 1837, the quarter in 1838 and finally the half dollar in 1839.[14]

 

One final Capped Bust coin was struck towards the end of the series which merits special attention, as it became the most valuable Capped Bust coin of all. In 1838 the New Orleans Mint was opened as a subsidiary branch of the main Federal Mint Office in Philadelphia. One of the first coins struck here was what is known as the 1838 O Capped Bust Half Dollar. This was designed by Christian Gobrecht, who as noted above designed the Liberty Seated series of coins. Gobrecht was increasingly acting in William Kneass’s role in the late 1830s, as Kneass had suffered a stroke in 1835 and his ability to work with his hands was compromised thereafter. Eventually, on Kneass’s death in 1840 Gobrecht succeeded him as third Chief Engraver of the Federal Mint, a role he would serve in until 1847.[15]

 

The 1838 O Capped Bust Half Dollar which he produced varied in two key ways from previous Capped Bust Half Dollars. Firstly, the metal composition was slightly different to that used in all the other Capped Bust coins. There was a tiny amount more silver and a correspondingly lesser amount of copper used, so that the composition was a more rounded 90% silver and 10% copper. More significantly, these were the first half dollars struck with the actual wording ‘Half Dol.’ on the reverse of the coin, rather than ‘50c.’ as had been typical of half dollar coins up to that point. Evidently the coin was intended as a commemorative coin to mark the changed manner in which the half dollar was struck. Accordingly, only twenty copies of the coin were struck. The small number made has ensured that this is a very valuable Capped Bust coin and one sold at auction in 2008 for $632,500, making it by far the most expensive Capped Bust Half Dollar, or indeed Capped Bust coin of any description ever sold.[16] 

 

 1838 O Capped Bust Half Dollar

Obverse and Reverse of the 1838 O Capped Bust Half Dollar coin. These differed from previous versions of the Capped Bust Half Dollar in that ‘Half Dol.’ was written on the Reverse, rather than the more traditional ‘50c.’ Only twenty of these were struck and they are consequently by far the most valuable Capped Bust coins ever struck, with one selling in 2008 for $632,500. One would probably auction for in excess of one million dollars today.

 

Thus, the Capped Bust series of coins left usage in 1839. It was a symbolic indication of the changing of the guard in the Federal Mint, as William Kneass handed over control to Christian Gobrecht, who officially replaced him as Chief Engraver the following year. Gobrecht’s Seated Liberty coinage would go on to dominate US coinage for the next 60 years. They were not finally replaced until 1891 when President Benjamin Harrison approved the introduction of the so-called Barber coinage, designed by the engraver Charles E. Barber. Interestingly, these returned somewhat to the Capped Bust theme in that they once again featured a side profile of Liberty and she was yet again depicted with a cap of sorts. However, this was now a laurel wreath and Liberty had returned to facing eastwards in contrast to the Capped Bust coinage in which she had faced westwards.[17]

 

The Capped Bust was recently revived when it was used in 2008 on the obverse side of the Andrew Jackson Liberty First Spouse Gold Coin, a series of coins which have been issued in the early twenty-first century to honour the first spouses of the nation’s presidents or their equivalents as first lady. Thus, the Capped Bust was used 169 years after it was discontinued to commemorate the tenure of Emily Donelson as de-facto First Lady, as she acted as hostess as the White House during her uncle’s presidency.[18]  

 

Andrew Jackson's Wife Commemorative Coin

Obverse side of Andrew Jackson’s Liberty First Spouse Coin of 2008. The Capped Bust was revived after a 169 year abeyance for use on this coin.

 

  

 

[1] Steven Bradley Karoleff, Bust Half Dollar Bibliomania (Online Publication, 2012), provides a massive amount of bibliographical date pertaining to the Capped Bust series of coins and the Capped Bust Half Dollar in particular.

 

[2] Patterson Du Bois, ‘Our Mint Engravers’, in American Journal of Numismatics, and Bulletin of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, Vol. 18, No. 1 (July, 1883), pp. 12–16, quote at p. 12.

[3] David Kahn, Die State Progressions of Capped Bust Half Dollar Die Varieties (Maryland, 2022); R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 185–186.

[4] R. W. Julian, ‘Capped Bust Half Dollar: Shaping American Commerce’, COINage, 10 October 2018.

[5] https://www.pcgs.com/coinfacts/coin/1807-50c-bearded-goddess/39357 [accessed 16/6/22].

[6] David Kahn, Die State Progressions of Capped Bust Half Dollar Die Varieties (Maryland, 2022); R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 186–188.

[7] https://www.usacoinbook.com/coins/1220/dimes/capped-bust/1814-P/small-date/ [accessed 16/6/22]; R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 143–144.

[8] R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 160–161.

[9] https://www.usacoinbook.com/coins/1779/quarters/capped-bust/1822-P/25-cent-over-50-cent/ [accessed 16/6/22].

[10] https://www.usacoinbook.com/coins/1785/quarters/capped-bust/1827-P/original-curl-base-2-in-25c/ [accessed 16/6/22].

[11] Anna J. Magee, Memorials of the Kneass Family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1920),

Patterson Du Bois, ‘Our Mint Engravers’, in American Journal of Numismatics, and Bulletin of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, Vol. 18, No. 1 (July, 1883), pp. 12–16.

[12] R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 137–138.

[13] R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 137–138.

[14] https://www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v11n45a09.html [accessed 15/6/22]; R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 138, 146, 162, 192.

[15] Patterson Du Bois, ‘Our Mint Engravers’, in American Journal of Numismatics, and Bulletin of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society, Vol. 18, No. 1 (July, 1883), pp. 12–16, p. 14; Charles Gobrecht Darrach, ‘Christian Gobrecht, Artist and Inventor’, in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Bibliography, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1906), pp. 355–358.

[16] Greg Lambousy, ‘The Mint at New Orleans’, The Numismatist (March, 2003), pp. 36–43; R. S. Yeoman and Kenneth Bressett, A Guide of United States Coins: The Official Red Book (63rd Edition, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009), pp. 191–192; https://www.usacoinbook.com/coins/2566/half-dollars/capped-bust/1838-O/ [accessed 16/6/22].

[17] Sol Taylor, ‘Barber’s Silver Coinage’, The Signal, 20 August 2005; R. W. Julian, ‘Charles Barber’s Dime Design Appreciated by Collectors’, Numismatic News, 7 February 2018.

[18] https://www.usmint.gov/learn/coin-and-medal-programs/first-spouse-gold-coins [accessed 16/6/22]; Maria Ricapito, ‘De Facto First Ladies: A Definitive Guide’, JSTOR Daily, 18 January 2017; https://www.usmint.gov/coins/coin-medal-programs/first-spouse-gold-coins/andrew-jacksons-liberty [accessed 16/6/22].

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